Of Weights and Measures

  • Rav Michael Hattin

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat Ki Teitzei – Of Weights and Measures

By Rav Michael Hattin





With the reading of Parashat Ki Teitzei, the major part of Moshe's review and explanation of the mitzvot – his farewell words of instruction and teaching that constitute the core of Sefer Devarim – is climactically completed.  Replete with over seventy mitzvot, some mere elaborations of earlier legislation, others introduced here for the first time, there is in fact no other parasha in the entire Torah that contains so many commands.  From this point onwards, until the completion of Sefer Devarim a few weeks hence, Moshe’s words will become progressively more exhortative, as his concern shifts from reviewing and explaining the Torah's laws to impressing upon the people of Israel their august responsibilities as God's chosen nation. 


Soon they will cross over the Yarden to enter Canaan, and Moshe therefore is obliged to prepare Israel not only for the general challenges of settlement that confront any migrant group in a new land, but also for the particular challenges posed by their inevitable encounter with the Canaanites' alluring but morally corrupt culture.  In Canaan, after all, the people of Israel will come into contact with indigenous and deeply-rooted cultural and religious traditions at complete odds with the exalted vision of ethical monotheism that they are to champion.  This of course explains one of Sefer Devarim's most striking features, the harsh and unequivocal polemic against idolatry and polytheism that is more often than not coupled with ominous warnings and portentous premonitions of Israel's own inevitable infidelity to God. 


But while Moshe’s recurring warnings and exhortations concerning idolatry can be understood as anticipatory for the cultural conditions that the people are sure to encounter on the other side of the Jordan, they are almost entirely lacking from our parasha.  Instead, our parasha constitutes a sort of digest of diverse legislation, a collection of laws covering the gamut of human experience and addressing many features of our relationship with God as well as with other people.  These numerous laws, then, here presented as a list of concise but forceful formulations, are the concrete counterpoint to Moshe’s impassioned but abstract critique of idolatry that he expresses everywhere else, and his emphatic declaration that while ideas and beliefs may hold sway over minds, it is deeds alone that transform reality.





In contrast to Parashat Ki Teitzei that is filled with mitzvot, the final four parashiyot of Sefer Devarim – Ki Tavo, Nitzavim, VaYelech and VeZot HaBeracha – are concerned far less with the issue of specific commands and much more with the matter of the sealing of the covenant between Israel and God, the eternal contract predicated upon Israel's fulfillment of the very principles that the rest of the Book so painstakingly sets down.  The showcase of that covenant is of course Israel’s pledge to remain loyal and steadfast to God’s teachings in order that they might live and merit His reciprocal blessing.  As such, these final four sections follow quite naturally upon the variegated legislation that Parashat Ki Teitzei introduces and serve as a fitting finale to the Book of Devarim as a whole.


Not surprisingly, with the land of Canaan beckoning just over the horizon, the Book of Devarim mentions the trying exigency of warfare on a number of occasions, and it is with just such a passage that our parasha begins.  Although the people retain God's assurance that eventual possession of the land will be theirs, they have also been made aware that the process of conquering, securing and settling it will require of them not only fortitude and steadfast trust, but patience and forbearance as well.  Repeatedly, Israel is called upon to "not be afraid" (7:18), and to remember God's salvation (20:1,4).  And over and over again, they are reminded that ultimate victory will be theirs only if they are prepared to extirpate the idolatrous shrines of the Canaanites and their associated cults of depravity (7:2-5; 7:25-26; 12:2-3; 20:18).  Triumph in battle will not be decisive in determining the future success of Israel in the new land unless it is twinned with the people’s awareness and acceptance of their spiritual destiny to uphold God’s laws.


While the polemic against idolatry and the subject of warfare together constitute the central axis upon which all else revolves, the Book of Devarim also presents us with many soaring passages of encouragement and reassurance, that more than once sound the siren call to teshuva and return.  This is to indicate that although Israel's mission may be fraught with difficulties and hindered by setbacks, triumph will eventually be theirs.  And while specific mitzvot in Sefer Devarim are often addressed to the individual, the scope of the Book is much more broad, for it directs its timeless message to the nation of Israel of which the individual is but one indispensable part.  Deuteronomic topics such as the establishment of a national center for Divine worship, the appointment of a judiciary, the election of a monarchy, and the unfortunate exigencies of warfare are best understood as belonging to the purview of the people as a whole rather than as responsibilities that devolve upon the individual.


Put in context, then, parashat Ki Teitzei should be understood as an integral part of the larger structure of the Book of Devarim, but nevertheless unique for its single-minded attention to laws and injunctions.  Even as Deuteronomy’s larger themes embrace our parasha from all sides and inform many of its specifics, Ki Teitzei stands alone.





This week, we will briefly consider a single provision of the parasha that is unusual in terms of its literary structure as well as emblematic of much of the parasha’s larger concerns:


You shall not have in your pouch (possession) a stone and another stone, large and small.  You shall not have in your home an efah and another efah, large and small.  (Rather) you shall have a full and just stone, you shall have a full and just efah, in order that your days might be lengthened upon the land that God your Lord give you.  For all who perpetrate these things are an abomination to God your Lord, all who perpetrate falsehood (Devarim 25:13-16).


Even before considering the meaning of the above passage and its specifics, we take note of its carefully constructed repetition, within verses as well as between them, which lends the whole a definite rhythmic quality:


YOU SHALL NOT HAVE in your pouch (possession?) a STONE and another STONE, LARGE and SMALL.  YOU SHALL NOT HAVE in your home an EFAH and another EFAH, LARGE and SMALL.  (Rather) you shall have A FULL AND JUST STONE, you shall have A FULL AND JUST EFAH, in order that your days might be lengthened upon the land that God your Lord gives you.  For ALL WHO PERPETRATE these things are an abomination to God your Lord, ALL WHO PERPETRATE falsehood (Devarim 25:13-16).


The subject of the passage is falsehood in weights and measures while the specific issue concerns “stones” and “efahs”.  The former pertains to calculating weight while the latter is a measure of volume (see, for instance, Shemot 16:36 – “As for the omer, it is a tenth of an efah”).  Clearly, the passage seeks to draw a parallel between the two items – just as a person’s weights must be accurate, so too their measures used for volume must be exact. 





According to the most straightforward reading, the “large stone/efah” refers to overcompensating while the “small stone/efah” refers to undercompensating.  As Rashi (11th century, France) explains:


…”large” means that it does not match the “small’, so that a person should not buy with the large while selling with the small (commentary to 25:13).


In other words, the Torah here forbids a person from practicing a tempting form of deception: using a weight marked as a standard amount that is in fact heavier or else lighter than that standard.  By using such a weight when buying, the deceiver secures more of the product; by utilizing it when selling, he surrenders to the buyer less of the product.  We must assume that the Torah’s repetition in the passage is emphatic, so that whether one uses weights or else volumes, which is to say any measures, they must be truthful and dependable.  


Rashi’s explanation, while concisely illuminating the crux of the matter, fails to address the unusual repetition and cadence outlined above.  Why does the Torah speak in particular about “stone and stone” or “efah and efah”?  Why the matter of “large and small”, as opposed to simply “unjust”?  Why the dual reference to “perpetrating” as if that somehow there was a binary quality to the act of deceit? 





It is Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam (R. Shemuel ben Meir, 12th century, France) who sheds additional light on the matter:


“Large and small” indicates that the deceiver prepares two matching half-weights, one of them heavy and one of them light, in order to deceive people.  This is because when he places both of them on the balance together, the weight is accurate and precise.  Therefore, the Torah demands a “full stone” that is whole and exact in and of itself, so that he cannot practice deception (commentary to 25:13).


In other words, says the Rashbam, the Torah is not simply outlawing the fashioning of inaccurate weights but is addressing the crafty root of the ruse.  The thoughtful swindler takes pains to conceal his methods, so that the outward observer not only fails to see any trickery but in fact sees only honesty and integrity.  The inaccurate stones spoken of in the Torah are cleverly constructed to be used IN TANDEM, in order to falsely highlight the sincerity of the charlatan.  When both of them are placed by him on the balance together, they exactly equal an accurate weight placed opposite that is equal to their combined amount!  It is only when they are separated and used individually that gain can be made from their actual weights, which are respectively more or less than the true standard. 


For instance, say that one stone weighs 1.2 kg (the “large” one) while the second weighs 0.8 kg (the “small one).  Outwardly, they are both constructed to resemble 1 kg weights, and in fact when they are placed on the scale and weighed opposite a standard 2 kg. weight, they will balance it exactly!  When the customer sees them displayed in this way, he naturally assumes that the weights are accurate and precise and that the establishment that makes use of them is reliable.  But then the deceiver uses them to weigh the goods individually, each time making a gain at the customer’s expense.  It is therefore not only deception and falsehood that the Torah seeks to expose, but also the carefully constructed public faחade of integrity and propriety that often masks the unpleasant reality.  Rashbam, then, sensitive to the literary aspects of the passage, critically presents the reiteration in the text as the interpretive key to understanding its true meaning.




It is up to Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) to complete the picture by commenting on the only section of the passage that is non-repetitive:


You shall not have in your pocket (possession?) a stone and another stone, large and small.  You shall not have in your home an efah and another efah, large and small.  (Rather) you shall have a full and just stone, you shall have a full and just efah, IN ORDER THAT YOUR DAYS MIGHT BE LENGTHENED UPON THE LAND THAT GOD YOUR LORD GIVES YOU.  For all who perpetrate these things are an abomination to God your Lord, all who perpetrate falsehood (Devarim 25:13-16).


Perceptively, Ibn Ezra remarks:


(The Torah speaks here of lengthened days upon the land) because it is well known that a righteous kingdom endures, since righteousness and integrity are like construction while falsehood is destructive.  In a single moment, the entire edifice comes tumbling down! (commentary to 25:15).


While both Rashi and Rashbam confine their comments to the individual, Ibn Ezra extrapolates to the nation.  “Length of days upon the land” should not be understood simply as a promise of reward for an individual’s righteousness conduct (as in fact the expression is often used in the Torah – see, for example, Devarim 5:15; 22:7 for specific mitzvot, or else Devarim 11:21 for a more comprehensive formulation).  In fact, opines Ibn Ezra, “length of days” in our context means the success of the nation and its staying power upon the land.  If buyers and sellers misrepresent the weights and volumes of their wares, if the marketplace is filled with treachery and deceit, then destruction must surely follow, for a kingdom founded upon falsehood cannot long survive.  It is only when honesty and dependability characterize the commercial (and by extension, social) interactions of a society that it can endure and thrive. 


We live in a time of great political upheaval.  So many of our elected officials, charged to carry out their demanding and onerous responsibilities with earnestness and integrity, are exposed instead as being fraudulent and self-interested.  Vehemently, they deny entirely their failures and misconstrue their misconducts as virtues.  While heavy suspicions of wrongdoing and incompetence hang over their heads like some dark, ominous cloud, they obliviously continue to trumpet their successes with impunity and to proclaim to all their flawless characters.  But how long can such a kingdom persevere? 


Ibn Ezra, however, alerts us to another more painful dimension of the discussion:  while we are accustomed to place the blame for all of our misfortunes upon our leaders, as if they have single-handedly fashioned the climate of falsehood and deceit in which the rest of us must suffer, it may in fact be the other way around.  Every small pretense, every individual’s act of petty fraud, every banal misuse of weights and measures by the ordinary man in the marketplace, helps build a culture of deception and superficiality that begins to shape the larger contours of our society.  Our leaders are simply the public products of our individual efforts, natural if not sometimes grotesque extensions of our failures to reign in our own fraudulent behaviors.  The endurance of the “kingdom” of which Ibn Ezra speaks, and of the “king” that must by extension rule it, are predicated upon the plodding deeds of the simple citizens that constitute the real building blocks of the realm.  As Elul dawns and we usher in once again the season of teshuva and renewal, let us resolve to improve the state of our society by first improving ourselves.


Shabbat Shalom